Monday, May 6, 2013

What's IN and UNDER the Great Salt Lake?

     The Great Salt Lake, as viewed from the northeast side of Antelope Island.

By Lynn Arave

WHAT'S  in and under the Great Salt Lake?

   The causeway to Antelope Island, as viewed from Antelope Island, with Fremont Island in the background.

--But, what riches and mysteries do the briny waters contain?

    The lake, its islands and surrounding environs have been the subjects of study by scientists, environmentalists and those seeking recreational opportunities. The lake water itself is thick, literally, with salt, and the history of the huge inland sea is thick, too, with fact and legend.Its natural contents are largely unique because the lake is unique - five to six times saltier than the oceans, with no outlet and so huge it influences the weather for hundreds of miles. Its waters are mined like the earth for salt and minerals, and its one natural life form, brine shrimp, are harvested like farm crops.
    Under its surface are the wrecks of an unknown number of aircraft, train car parts and sandbars. And beneath its bed it harbors oil, layers of salt-encrusted minerals and fetid masses of pickled sewage.
    While the lake is mostly inhospitable to boaters, swimmers at lakeside resorts have been fascinated by its ability to keep them floating ``like corks.''
    The constantly changing lake has a colorful history and has inspired a number of tall tales about monsters who may call its depths home.
    Don Currey, University of Utah geography professor, says visiting Antelope Island is a metaphysical experience.
    ``You're surrounded by buffalo and antelope. You're walking through time. It is the archetypal basin and range. You're riding high. You have a sense of being in the middle of great basin tectonics. It's a class in itself.''
    True to its name, the lake water holds plenty of salt. Concentrations of salt in the lake vary considerably though, from season to season, from year to year and in different locations and depths, but it is generally five to six times saltier than the ocean.
    Wallace Gwynn, a saline geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, said the Union Pacific railroad's earthen-fill causeway across the north end of the lake has divided it into two parts.
    The area north of the causeway is more salty now than ever, while the south is less salty. He said this man-made barrier has lessened the dramatic ``float like a cork'' phenomenon that was so strong on the lake's south end at Saltair Resort earlier in this century.
    Mineral extraction is a big business, with Great Salt Lake Chemicals Corporation employing huge evaporation ponds and a trench near Little Mountain, west of Ogden. Much smaller companies, such as Trace Chemicals Company in West Haven, Weber County, also capitalize on the brine's mineral contents. Other companies harvest salt for the table, cattle or winter roadway use from the lake.

  When briny lake water evaporates and in drought conditions the bottom of the lake is exposed, some minerals may concentrate in the mud. As the soil dries and the wind blows dust around, some of this dust may reach the Wasatch Front. Its health effects/risks are unclear at present.
    The saltwater in the lake itself is usually too concentrated to freeze. However, during calm winter weather, fresh water from streams flowing into the lake can freeze before it mixes with the lake water. Rain or snow also doesn't instantly mix with the brine. At times, there may be a narrow layer of fresher water on top of the lake. It takes a wind and some action within the lake to mix the waters.
    This has sometimes caused an ice sheet several inches thick to extend from the Weber River west to Fremont Island. In the early 1900s, this ice sheet made it possible for coyotes to cross to Fremont Island and attack sheep pastured there.
    The breakup of thick ice has also been known to form icebergs. One iceberg in 1942 was 30 feet high and 100 feet wide. 23, 1972.
    Icebergs also formed in 1984 during the wet winter when the lake's salinity dropped. The scene was described as mountains of shaved ice that roamed the lake acting like bulldozers - pushing aside anything in their way - trees, fences, old cars.
    It's no secret that fish occasionally float into the Great Salt Lake from its tributaries, like the Weber or Bear rivers. However, they are usually already dead.
    History books refer to various attempts to stock the lake with eels, oasters, crabs and the like, but none succeeded. Most sea life can't survive the extremely salty waters and those that can can't stand the wide temperature changes of the lake water from winter to summer.
    However, fresh-water fish, like carp, were reported in the flooded lands of Centerville and Farmington around the lake in 1984. Carp have always been found near places where fresh water flows into the lake, such as at Ogden Bay.
    During the wet years of 1983-85, the lake's southern waters were only about 2.5 times brinier than the ocean because of the influx of so much fresh water.
    According to Steve Phillips, media coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, there was a potpourri of fish - whitebass, trout, catfish and others - in the lake during the mid-1980s around the Jordan, Weber and Bear River drainages.
    Phillips said the fish would get flushed into the lake and they did survive for several years until the salinity began rising. He doubts any remain in the lake today, although some carp may survive in areas of Farmington Bay.
    The lake's only regular resident sea life are the brine shrimp. The brine shrimp's transparent body is rarely more than a half-inch long. They are used as fish food in aquariums and the Great Salt Lake supplies 90 percent of the world's inventory of brine shrimp eggs. Hat Island is the shrimp's favorite spot.
    One study estimated that as many as 25 brine flies per square inch or 370 million per beach mile can be found along the lake during their warm-weather peak.
    In the mid-1970s, one study found that the lake is part of the flyway between Canada and Mexico and that as many as 250,000 ducks and 10,000 Canadian Geese may be born annually on the lake and its shores. More pelicans may be born on the lake's islands than anywhere else in the nation.

  -- Because of its size and its proximity to an Air Force base and commercial airports, the Great Salt Lake has become the final resting place for a number of aircraft.
    Hill Air Force Base's main flight path crosses the lake and many commercial planes also cross over the lake en route to the Salt Lake International Airport.Hill Air Force Base spokesman Len Barry said there are some remains of crashed planes that couldn't be found, but he isn't sure exactly how many. Some pieces of salvaged planes also remain in the lake.
    The first recorded plane crash in the lake was Oct. 6, 1935. When the two-engine plane went down, three men died and it took four months to locate and salvage the plane. One body, found five months later, was so well-preserved by the salt that the man looked like he had died only the day before.
    In April 25, 1943, a B-25 crashed in northwest portion of the lake, killing five men; and in May 1946, a student pilot died when he flew too low and crashed near Black Rock.
    A B-57 crashed in the lake in April of 1971, but it was taken out of the water two months later.
    A mysterious plane wreck was sighted in the lake in 1979. It was believed to be the remains of a 1975 crash but was not salvaged because it posed no environmental hazards.
    Despite the shallow level of the lake, finding a downed plane is not easy. In 1982 when an F-16 crashed, the pilot ejected safely, but an anchored life raft used to mark the crash site was blown loose and drifted miles away. Sonar had to be used to assist divers, but it located underwater rock formations instead. A magnetometer couldn't find the metal plane under the lake because of the water's mineral content.
    Divers found it so dark in the 28-foot-deep water that underwater lights would create only a glow in front of their masks. Divers described the bottom 10 feet of the lake as a layer of decay that nauseated them. Most of the plane was finally recovered a month after the crash.
    In mid-1983, another F-16 crashed and it took two weeks to locate that wrecked plane. A light plane crashed in the lake in August of 1984, killing two men. It was never found.
    The lake has also been unkind to helicopters. A 1992 Air Force crash near the causeway to Antelope Island killed 12 men. Another copter crash in September 1993 killed one man.
    In 1966, a mysterious, fetid layer was found in the south arm of the lake at depths of 22 feet or more. This layer smelled like rotten eggs and was up to eight feet thick. Some believed it was material from brine flies and shrimp.
    The Utah Mineralogical and Geological Survey took a 12-foot deep core of lake bed out in 1969. It had a slight sulfurous odor and was said to feel like a roll of baker's dough ready for the oven.
    According to Wallace Gwynn, geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, this stinky layer at the lake's bottom mysteriously disappeared in mid-1991.
    Salt Lake and Davis counties dumped raw sewage into the Great Salt Lake until the late 1950s. Some believe the sewage may still be there at the bottom of the lake in some sort of pickled state. Sewer plants today, like the North Davis Sewer District west of Syracuse, pour only clear, treated water into the lake.
    Gwynn said there is some truth to that pickled sewage belief. He, for one, is glad no plan has been approved to create a fresh-water lake at Farmington Bay because he's seen what the bottom layer of Farmington Bay looks like. He describes it as a black, putrid and stinky layer.
    The lake also produces an odor that sometimes travels east and plagues residents around the lake. This smell is caused by rotting and decaying algae and other organic material around Farmington Bay. Western Davis County and Weber County occasionally get a whiff.
    There are some large sand bars found in the Great Salt Lake. From 1847 to 1850, a sandbar to Antelope Island was dry during the winter and covered by only 20 inches of water in the summer. The Mormon Pioneers used this sand bar to herd cattle to Antelope Island, then named Church Island. By 1865, the bar was impassible, thanks to the rising lake.
    Another big sandbar lies between the causeway to Antelope Island and Fremont Island. Ghostly gate posts mark the site of this sandbar about six miles out on the west side of the causeway. If the lake level drops to 4,194 feet above sea level or below, it would be possible to walk on the sand bar in no water, 6.5 miles to Fremont Island.

After walking that dry sandbar to Fremont Island twice (in 2004 and 2008), Lynn Arave found there wasn't much to see along that 6.5-mile trek.

Spotted were one old glass bottle, an old car tire, some piles of dead brine shrimp, a few tumbleweeds and tree branches, and most importantly -- a large metal anchor.
(The anchor was removed, likely by the State of Utah, by 2008.)

Mostly it was extremely flat, barren land, not unlike the salt flats around the lake.
(This sandbar is now under three feet of water ...)

Taylor Arave inspects the dry lake bed en route to Fremont Island    
                       on the sandbar in Sept. 2008.

    A man-made sandbar is also visible when the lake level is low -- this Spiral Jetty, is located near Rozel Point. This bulldozed work of art was done by Richard Smithson when the lake was low. It was covered by water in the 1980s, but its outline under the water can now be seen again.
    Indians living near Rozel Point at the lake's north end, knew about seepages of oil near the lake shore and used it for medical purposes. In warm weather, this oil would form a gooey carpet of tar on the lake bottom and occasionally trap a pelican.
    Amoco Oil Company drilled extensively in the lake from 1970 to 1981 because one estimate put 21 million barrels of crude oil beneath the lake. However, of its 15 wells on the south arm of the lake, five were dry. The oil found in the other wells was of poor quality and too thick - with a high sulphur content and pour point. In 1984, Amoco sold its lake lease to Utah Petrochemical Inc., which started some drilling in 1984.
    Though it is not economical to drill for the lake's thick oil now, Gwynn said he understands some improved technology may make the lake bottom's oil more profitable one day.

-UPDATE: In 2017 it was determined that while the dust blowing from the dry lake bed may not be that harmful itself, this dust is often a host for other pollutants in the atmosphere. Thus, GSL lakebed dust can carry harmful pollutants that might otherwise never reach the ground into the Salt Lake Valley where residents could be affected by them.


    Salt of the earth: Salt concentration in the Great Salt Lake

    1850 22.4%
    1873 13.7%
    1949 25.0%

    The lake was divided in 1959 by an earthen railroad causeway

    North end salinity     South end salinity
    1960s 26.0%               1960s 15.0%
    1984 25.0%                 1984 9.0%

(--The above was distilled from articles by Lynn Arave, published in the Deseret News.)

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about the Great Salt Lake and/or Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at:  


  1. Very interesting article.

  2. Wow!!! Reading this was amazing! !!
    I went there with my family but we were there just a little while because the smell that comes from the lake